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What Not To Expect from a Palestinian Unity Deal

The scene was all too familiar: A group of Palestinian men from rival factions Hamas and Fatah, plus a representative of a brotherly Arab country acting as interlocutor, all huddled on a small podium shaking hands before an even larger crowd of journalists. On Thursday, an agreement was signed between the two parties, putting an end to a longstanding schism and ushering in a new era of unity in Palestinian politics. But this wasn’t the first time.

Several other reconciliation agreements have been signed over the past decade between the two groups, which have been at odds since Hamas’s takeover of the Gaza Strip following its electoral win in 2006. This time, the men were noticeably older and Hamas’s leadership had changed to include top leaders from its armed faction at the helm. But this is a movie Palestinians have seen before. The agreement is signed, but not implemented on the ground. Even with the technocratic unity government in 2014 (appointed by Fatah and Hamas, and composed of politically unaffiliated members), the parties were simply unwilling to give up their power, and as a result, ministers occupied largely ceremonial positions.

So far, the new unity pact has been symbolic in nature, and several issues have yet to be resolved. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has already said he would not agree to a “Hezbollah model” in the Palestinians territories, meaning that Hamas’s Qassam Brigade must give up its weapons and allow the Palestinian Authority security forces to control Gaza (including its border crossings) or be integrated into the force itself.

On numerous occasions, Abbas has expressed his unwavering support for maintaining security coordination between the PA and the Israeli army, a status quo that Hamas is unlikely to accept. Abbas is also aware that the PA’s limited self-rule runs on the goodwill of Israel and on the financial support of the international community, which considers Hamas to be a terrorist group. In its current incarnation, it’s difficult to see a U.S. and EU funding mechanism for a unity PA that includes Hamas, unless the Islamist group takes some drastic measures, such as formally splitting its armed wing from the political party.

Israel’s cautious reception to the unity pact is also cause for concern. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already made it clear that under any reconciliation agreement he expects Hamas to recognize Israel and disarm, conditions reaffirmed by the Quartet of Middle East mediators (Russia, the UN, EU, and U.S.). Hamas likely views such preconditions as a death sentence; giving up its only means of defense and further amending its charter would simply erode its authority and legitimacy too much for some in the group to take, risking internal divisions.

Given so many complications, and the general rigidity of inter-Palestinian politics, the speed with which the preliminary deal was signed is striking—and telling.

As recently as March, the PA was accusing Hamas of creating a “shadow government” after it set up a so-called administrative committee to govern the Gaza Strip. Abbas slashed salaries for Gaza-based civil servants who were working for the PA before Hamas took over. He cut payments to Israel for electricity to the coastal enclave, and withdrew funding for medical stipends. Gaza was plunged into darkness, with people living on around two hours of power a day. Sewage, left untreated, is being dumped into the sea, and the UN has warned that if conditions continue to slip, Gaza could be “unlivable” in only a few years.

Around the same time, rumors began to surface that Hamas was working on its own deal with former Gaza security chief and Abbas confidant-turned-arch-nemesis, Mohammad Dahlan. An agreement was indeed signed in June between Hamas and Dahlan, who promised to end Egypt’s siege on Gaza with the opening of the Rafah crossing, and to bring aid from the United Arab Emirates, where the 55-year-old former Abbas aide has been living in exile.

Two months later, Hamas announced it was supportive of holding elections and disbanding its administrative committee, paving the way for the PA to take over its duties in Gaza. And just this week, PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah headed the first PA cabinet meeting in Gaza. All this swiftness points to a major factor contributing to the deal’s sudden adoption: Hamas’s desperation and Fatah’s weakness.

Three wars and a siege imposed by Israel and Egypt have left the Gaza Strip in dire economic and humanitarian straits. Hamas had few remaining regional allies left after Qatar was forced to cut financial support to the group and expel some of its members after coming under pressure from its neighbors.

Meanwhile, Abbas’s adherence to the two-state solution peace process has yielded very few tangible results, apart from a few victories at various international bodies, most notably Palestine’s elevation to non-member observer state status at the UN. Since the 1990s, when the Oslo Accord was struck with Israel, settlements have mushroomed across the West Bank as the PA morphed into a bloated bureaucratic patronage network on which a large cross-section of the Palestinian population depends for its livelihood.

Abbas also grapples with a crisis of accountability and legitimacy as he remains PA president six years after his mandate expired. Two-thirds of Palestinians saythey’d like to see him resign, as crackdowns in the West Bank have widened to include journalists, political opponents, and even those voicing criticism on social media.

Almost half want the PA itself dissolved: What was originally envisioned as a clear-cut vehicle to statehood has become a dysfunctional entity completely dependent on external aid and subject to Israeli controls. Indeed, Israel’s occupation is still felt by average Palestinians in almost every facet of life, including most importantly their ability to move freely on their land. The Palestinian leadership, though largely insulated from the everyday indignities of occupation, knew they needed a win to shore up popular support.

Faced with such widespread public disapproval, both Hamas and Fatah needed to take action. With Gaza isolated and on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe, the Islamist group acted first, changing its charter to distance itself from the Muslim Brotherhood, thus wooing Egypt back, and voicing its support for the idea of a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders (which implies tacit support for the two-state solution, the other state being Israel). It also strengthened its ties with Dahlan, a move that paved the way for better relations with the UAE, but also ultimately pushed Abbas into a corner.

The PA president was now beset by an emboldened Dahlan, and a Hamas strengthened by a potential financial boost from the UAE as well as renewed cordial relations with Egypt. The Islamist group had leverage, and with the administrative committee disbanded, Abbas was forced to make a move.

Now the move has been made, but reconciliation is far from certain. Could Hamas and Fatah finally be desperate enough to make real concessions to each other and put years of bad blood behind them? Even if they did, Israel may not allow such a government to function. Palestinians have seen these scenes play out before, and it’s unlikely that enough has changed to make the movie end differently.

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